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Clinton Receives Warm Welcome at Harvard

Harvard seems to have a habit of attracting out-of-office politicians. First it was Al Gore, now his one-time boss, former President Bill Clinton has paid a visit to campus, speaking at a Kennedy School event held at the Gordon Track and Tennis Center, just across the street from Shad Hall in Allston, on November 19.

Clinton, who spoke for at least 45 minutes on his views about September 11, its effects on the global economy, and the Arab world’s perception of America, was greeted by more than 6,000 cheering students and faculty.

For those unable to get tickets for the event, the speech was broadcast in several other locations throughout Harvard’s campus, including Burden and Spangler Auditoriums at HBS.

Harvard President Larry Summers, Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, introduced Clinton as “a man who is not afraid to do what is right”, and used the example of the 1995 Mexican bailout, when Clinton defied opinion polls and most members of Congress by supporting stabilization loans to the country. But Summers also knew how to make a joke. “Usually, to get a crowd this large at Harvard, we have to give away diplomas,” he said to Clinton. “Today, it is only your presence.”

“A World Without Walls”

The central point of Clinton’s speech was that the progress made through globalization since the end of World War II has its costs. He called the events of September 11 and the Anthrax scare “the dark side” of the success America and the world have enjoyed. And he noted how the disappearance of regional and national borders has other effects. “We live in a world without walls,” Clinton said. “Openness brings greater opportunities, and greater vulnerabilities.”

During the speech, Clinton used statistics about poverty and the spread of AIDS to illustrate the challenges the world faces in the future. He stated that current spending by rich countries is not enough to improve the lives of people in need around the world, and that spending needs to be focused on primary education to encourage long-term economic growth for poor countries. He also mentioned the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who has championed efforts to institutionalize the idea of legal claims to private property in less developed countries, so that property owners can borrow against their assets and invest in economic development.

“This costs a lot of money,” Clinton said. “But it’s a lot cheaper than going to war.”

If economic development occurs, people around the world will begin “to take responsibility for themselves” rather than blaming others for their woes, Clinton said. The desire to inflict punishment and place blame can lead to terrorist activity.

This led to a discussion of America’s image around the world, and particularly in the Arab world. “We’ve got to get our story out,” he said. First, there were many Muslim victims of the September 11 tragedies, a fact that has not been publicized. Second, that the majority of the military engagements during his presidency–in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo–were to help Muslims who were being oppressed by their governments, and that he believed few Muslims actually know that today. He said that America needs to show that Muslims worship and live in our society freely and without oppression.

Finally, Clinton acknowledged that America is not blameless. He criticized American culture as “too materialistic” and remarked, “We all have to change…we can’t claim for ourselves what we deny to others.”

Political Axes to Grind?

Despite the new humanitarian focus, Clinton the politician was never far away. He referenced several actions his administration had taken to combat terrorism and promote peace, although he did not try to defend himself against recent criticism that the fight against terrorism was uncoordinated during his tenure. In one of the stranger comments, Clinton said, “Vice President Gore chaired a committee investigating airport security. They made several recommendations, some of which were adopted, some of which weren’t.” It wasn’t clear what he meant by that, but it notable because it was the only time he mentioned Gore during his entire speech or the Q&A that followed.

After the speech, Clinton received a prolonged standing ovation from the adoring crowd. Ryan Fitzgerald, the Captain of the Harvard football team, gave Clinton, a Yale Law alum, a Harvard football jersey and a football from Harvard’s victory in the Harvard-Yale game.

HBS Reaction

Meanwhile, about 150 students watched Clinton’s speech on the HBS campus. Several students said they were not surprised by the content of the speech, and generally supported the ideas he advocated.

“I think the core parts of his message were really important–they were somewhat obvious in some respects, but they should be said again and again,” said John Hoffman (OJ).

In addition to his ideas, several viewers said Clinton’s speaking style had a strong impact on them. Eric Sillman (OJ) noted that he stayed fully engaged throughout the speech, overcoming the short attention span fostered in HBS classrooms where many different students speak in quick succession.

“The way he had the power to draw people up to applaud was very powerful. You don’t see that often,” Sillman said.

November 19, 2001
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